Mischa Maisky: The most unbelievable musician I ever met

Mischa Maisky: The most unbelievable musician I ever met


norman lebrecht

July 20, 2014

The ongoing controversy about Isaac Stern has sparked a fascinating conversation about great violinists who, for one reason or other, never became world famous. The name that shot to the top of the pile was the Latvian violinist, Philippe Hirschhorn. Philippe who?

Ljubisa Jovanovic explains.


Philippe Hirschhorn

Philippe Hirschhorn (Violin)
Born: 1946 – Riga, Latvia (former USSR)
Died: November 26, 1996 – Brussels, Belgium

The Latvian violinist, Philippe Hirschhorn, first studied at the conservatory of Riga with Professor Waldemar Sturestep; later he studied with Professor Michael Waiman at the Conservatoire of St. Petersburg. He won the First Prize at the International Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in 1967, where the Jury included some of the formost names of the 20th century violinists: David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin, Zino Francescatti, Arthur Grumiaux, Joseph Szigeti, Josef Gingold, Théo Olof, André Gertler, and Max Rostal (the year in which Gidon Kremer won the third prize). We can find his legendary interpretations of Paganini 1st Concerto and Geminiani Sonata from this competition. ‘I had the impressions that I cheated the jury,’ he said. ‘I was a successful liar.’

The playing of Philippe Hirschhorn was ultra-sensitive, with deep understanding of artistic aspects and knowledge about music, looking for emotional and spiritual points and sharing idealistic sense for instrument. Always afraid to lose part of  his art while working on it, he wondered if his playing was “pure” enough? After he won the First Prize at the International Queen Elisabeth Music Competition, he thought was “somehow cheating and lie the jury” during his perform of Paganini?! He was sure that for making a good carrier, is more important to be clever, focused on wright things, hard worker with lucky, then to be original figure in music. Somehow he stayed “unadopted” in world of artistic commercialism. For many musicians he is one of most important personalities of XX century…

“The most unbelievable musician I ever met… He possessed mystical hypnotic power” – Mischa Maisky

Philippe Hirschhorn settled in Belgium in 1973. He played concerts all over the world (Europe, America and Japan) with the most prestigious orchestras conducted by amongst others Herbert von Karajan, Ferdinand Leitner, Frübeck de Burgos, Jesús López-Cobos and Lawrence Foster. He played chamber music with partners who were also friends such as Elisabeth Leonskaya, Martha Argerich, Mischa Maisky, Brigitte Engerer, David Geringas, etc.

Despite being one of the most gifted violinists ever, he did not gain worldwide attention. The rare recordings that exist of him playing are examples of his technical and musical abilities. Sadly, his career was cut short because of poor health (some attributing to unspecified illnesses, acute nerves and burnout), or maybe because his priority was to have the most perfectly playing, technically and musicaly, never being happy about it. Once, after concert, he began to play the 1st caprice by Paganini, everybody in the hall was so impressed by his perfectly technique but after one minute of playing, he suddently stopped and went out because he thought he was playing too bad!

Philippe Hirschhorn was the teacher of many excellent violinists who dedicated their working life to performing and teaching, among others Philippe Graffin, Cornelia Angerhofer, Evert Sillem, Janine Jansen, Yoris Jarzynski, Marie-Pierre Vendôme and many others. He died in 1996 in Brussels at the age of 50, from a brain tumor.

Janine Jansen said in an interview to Strings Magazine that ”it was her lessons at the Utrecht Conservatory with Philippe Hirshhorn, that took her playing to a new level. Their time together, so formative for Jansen, was tragically short: Jansen was 16 when she began studying with him and Hirshchorn was already suffering the brain tumor that would kill him two years later. In the Janine film, composer Victor Kissine talks about receiving a phone call from Hirshchorn, who had just heard Jansen play for the first time. “He wanted to share his amazement,” Kissine recalls. The admiration seems to have been mutual between teacher and pupil. “The lessons were so exciting and so inspiring for me,” Jansen says. “To play for such an electrifying musician, you always wanted to give your best.”

Ljubisa Jovanovic
Flute Professor, Faculty of Music, Belgrade


  • alec johnston says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I really found it helpful.

  • Thanks for sharing.
    He was my teacher for the most inspiring 4 years of my musical life.
    Meeting him was such a shock and nothing was the same afterwards…

  • george hlawiczka says:

    Finally perhaps he will receive recognition.
    He was my mentor for 6 years along with Wiktor Liberman at the Utrecht Conservatory. We truly all felt so lucky to have been blessed to have such pure and uncompromising musicians as our teachers. Nothing felt ever the same afterwards, though I am so fortunate and thankful to have later met Jorma Panula and Martha.. Such teachers and musicians are rare indeed and fame and fortune has no place in their greatness.
    Thank you for giving Philippe Hirshhorn this space!

  • Dr Peter Lim says:

    Many thanks, Norman,
    You are never dull—I have learnt a lot from you.
    I wish to chat with you but know you are perpetually busy–seeya in Melb.

    Warmest wishes

  • M2N2K says:

    Sometime in early 1970s, I saw and heard him perform Bartok’s Solo Sonata. It was mesmerizingly brilliant, combining young Heifetz’s virtuosic precision with young Menuhin’s expressive intensity. Unfortunately, I have not heard him live at any time after that.

  • Githa Schrevel says:

    Not one day passes without thinking of our great teachers in the dutch, Utrecht conservatory: Philipp Horschhorn and Wiktor Liberman. We had this great chance to be taught violin by them. Even though I live far from the big concert scenes, I feel their presence in my teaching and in my playing, thank you so much!

  • Barbarona says:

    Oscar Shumsky is but one more example of the great violinists whose careers were arrested by the enmity of Isaac Stern, who was able to control access to Carnegie Hall, when a Carnegie Hall performance was necessary to establish stardom.